Sunday, July 29, 2007

All's Well That Ends Well (?)

It came down to the wire, in the closest spread between the top three finishers that anyone can remember. After yesterday's time trial, Alberto Contador only led Cadel Evans by 23 seconds, with Levi Leipheimer nipping at Evans' heels by 8 seconds more. Team Discovery kicked commanding butt this year, taking the overall GC lead, the best rookie rider, had two riders on the podium and three in the top ten, as well as taking the overall best team title by a huge margin. And although they're looking for a new sponsor since Discovery won't back them next year, I don't think they'll have much trouble. They've won 8 of the last 9 Tours. That's easy money. [Addendum, 10Aug07: Or not. According to VeloNews, the team is folding for lack of a continuing sponsor. Sic transit gloria Mundi.]

If Cadel Evans had gotten a little running room, he might have made a run for the lead there at the end, but if there's one thing Discovery knows how to do, it's protect a lead. The poor guy never had a chance. But on the bright side, he's the highest-placing Aussie ever at the Tour. He'll be back next near.
And so will Contador. At 24, he's one of the youngest winners ever. With a little more training and experience, he can only get better. Good years ahead for Team Discovery... [Or not: see above.] Well, not Discovery anymore, but you know what I mean.

And now that we've crowned a new King in Yellow, we can go back to waiting to see how the arbitrators rule on last year's case. Maybe we'll find out this week, maybe not.

I almost hope not. It'd be nice to give Contador some time to bask in his well-earned glory before that particular story breaks out again. He's the future, not the past. It's his time now.

Friday, July 27, 2007

High Flight

Well, this certainly lends a whole new meaning to the High Life.

For crying out loud ... is there no adult supervision anymore over at the Astronaut Office?

Mind you, there are some people who think that it's perfectly reasonable to get schnockered before climbing on top of a couple of million pounds of high explosive. I have to disagree. There is no procedure in manned spaceflight that I know of that is improved in any way by crew inebriation. And besides, I kind of preferred things the way they were back in the day when we could reasonably expect our astronaut corps not to embarrass us in public.

Ladies and gentlemen, can we please have some professional conduct? You know, keep 'em zipped, stay sober on company time, the sort of thing us civilians generally have to do? And once in a while, do remember that you're representing America to the world. The best and brightest, and all that jazz. At least, you're supposed to be the best and brightest. Even if you're really not, can you at least act like it?

Because I never before had to worry about the competence of the people riding the rockets. The managers, yes. The politicians, yes. But I always had absolute confidence in the eyes at the instruments, the hands at the controls.

I do not like having to worry about that. Fix this now. This kind of doubt, we cannot afford.

[Addendum, 30Aug07: According to this report, NASA has found that there is no evidence of astronauts partaking of liquid courage prior to boarding any spacecraft. While this is cause for relief, the fact that I can take a story like this at face value is still cause for concern. NASA needs to be seen to be tightening ship, whether they really need to or not. Perception takes on a reality of its own sometimes, and the public needs to see things happen so that they can regain confidence.]

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Hits Just Keep Coming

I keep a private list in my head of all the jobs that I don't want. If I ever find myself with one of them, I will know that I have done something grievously wrong with my life, and need to take immediate corrective action. The list has included jobs like cab driver, missile launch officer, and President of the United States. Today, though, I must make a new addition.

I never, ever want Christian Prudhomme's job: Director of the Tour de France.

Why? Well, this year's Tour is well and truly in an inverted flat spin with all engines on fire.

Oh, it's been a hoot to watch. There's been plenty of good racing. The sprint to the finish of a stage has always been great fun for me to watch. It's always exciting, especially when you're pulling for one rider or another to cross the line first. And the silver lining for me in this is that Alberto Contador of Team Discovery will start tomorrow's stage in yellow. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself...

In the space of two days, three riders have been bounced for doping-related offenses.

Alexandre Vinokourov: alleged homologous blood doping.

Cristian Moreni: failed testosterone test, after which he owned up to doing the deed.

And now ... Michael Rasmussen. Not for doping per se, but for lying to UCI officials about where he was when he was supposed to be taking an out-of-competition test. He said he was in Mexico, when he was actually in Italy.

Yes sir, my end of the stick looks pretty damn spotless. I will go to work tomorrow whistling a happy tune, 'cause I don't have this poor bastard's job...

Two observations:

First, hard as it might be, you have got to keep a positive attitude. This had to happen. If you're really going to get serious about eliminating doping from cycling, you have to be ruthless about removing cheaters from competition. Even suspected cheaters, even if you really can't claim to have proven the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. You have to make the sanctions sting enough to deter people from trying. What we'll end up with after the dust clears is a cleaner sport.

Second, props to Moreni for sacking up and owning his deed. While he'd have been a better man not to have done it at all, it still takes a real man to 'fess up and take the hit. I hope he serves his suspension and comes back clean, and I hope some team welcomes him when he does.

Stout hearts, guys. Better days are ahead. And look on the bright side:

You don't have Prudhomme's job.

Mr. Fusion?

There are people who lament the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger cannot run for President. I would offer up the point that, possibly, he's doing a sufficiently good job as Governor of California that he shouldn't leave that job any time real soon. Case in point: According to this piece at Next Energy News, Governor Schwarzenegger is set to pony up some cash to Robert Bussard's fusion energy outfit. (Hat Tip: Instapundit)

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be huge. Beyond huge. In fact, this may well be the most important thing to happen yet this year.

One of our most significant problems today is the fact that our energy economy depends upon materials that are relatively rare: oil, coal, and other fossil fuels. Even uranium is not especially plentiful. What we really want to do is break away from that, and find an energy source that is more plentiful.

The obvious choice is fusion, but this carries some problems with it. The most easily sustained fusion reactions involve deuterium and tritium, and D-T reactions spit out stray neutrons. Neutrons are not wanted, not even a little bit. For one, being neutral particles, it's damn hard to extract energy from a hot neutron. For another, stray neutrons tend to make things around them radioactive. But fortunately for us, that's not the only fusion reaction available.

The one that Bussard has been working with lately involves the fusion reaction bewteen a proton and Boron-11. Boron-11 is the most abundant isotope of Boron, and can be found in abundance in the mineral borax. It's sufficiently common that it's often used in detergents. And best of all, the proton/Boron-11 fusion reaction releases no stray neutrons. The proton fuses with the Boron-11 nucleus to form Carbon-12, which decays to Beryllium-8 and Helium-4. The Beryllium-8 nucleus, in fairly short order, decays to two Helium-4 nuclei. So you start the reaction with one proton and one Boron-11, and end up with three Helium-4 nuclei, and energy.

This could be revolutionary. This could change everything.

Applications abound beyond stationary plants to power cities and industry. Units can be built small enough to power ships, both of the ocean-going variety and the kind for going into orbit. A rocket based on this technology will be both vastly powerful and very efficient, something current rocket technology cannot achieve.

More information on Bussard's work can be found at Wikipedia. I've been following this topic for quite some time, and this article seems pretty accurate.

Now, there's many a slip 'tween the crouch and leap, and results will be some years in the making. But keep your fingers crossed that this actually takes off and starts running. The sooner we get started on this, the sooner we can tell those primitive cretins in the Middle East to go drink their damn oil.

A worthy goal, don't you think?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fatum Iustum Stultorum

Holy Groin-Stomp, Batman!

Alexandre Vinokourov has been bounced from the Tour de France, for injecting himself with extra red blood cells to boost his sagging performance. More coverage can be found here, if you care to look.

You know, this just proves the old adage: Some men can learn by reading about others' mistakes, and some can learn by hearing about them, but there are a few who just have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.

Team Astana is probably toast after this, and for their epitaph I nominate this post's title: Righteous is the destiny of fools. Because the guy who told Vinokourov that this stunt was a good idea is a true paragon of drooling idiocy, and anyone taking his advice isn't far behind.

It boggles the mind. But Vino, after suffering two crashes and falling far behind in the general classification, was a desperate, desperate man. Desperate men take desperate measures. Even when they don't make a whole lot of sense to those of us standing on the outside.

Granted, we are talking about the same lab whose clown-tastic methodology I spoke about earlier. But this test is sufficiently idiot-proof that even LNDD couldn't screw it up. You mix in a little dye with the blood sample, you run it past a laser, and if the colors change, presto! You've found evidence of blood-diddling. A trained monkey could probably run this test.

So: If this doping technique is so damn easy to spot, why does anyone bother using it? Beats me. But people do stupid things all the time. Hundreds of times daily, poor dumb bastards lose their shirts in Vegas trying to draw to inside straights, for example. And every spring some fool goes on an impromptu boating trip when he tries to drive his truck across a rain-swollen creek. And every last one of them thinks that they're the clever one who'll beat the odds.

Right. Sure they are.

Vino gambled and lost, and in the process has dug a nice smoking hole for his career. And like the leader of a flight demonstration team who augers in, he's liable to take his team with him. And you know what? I really can't say that I feel for them.

There's no way this is the result of lab incompetence. This is something that Vinokourov and Astana have brought upon themselves, and they only have themselves to blame.

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Sony: The Punchy MacAngry School of Customer Dis-Service

Apparently, Megan McArdle has had her Sony VAIO laptop die and go to Customer Service hell. They claim that they're going to fix it, but they're making it inordinately difficult to do so.

Words to read and heed, if you're in the market for a new computer. There's a certain manufacturer whose name starts with "S" that you'd be well advised to steer clear of.

Do yourself a favor. If you need a new PC, you can do much, much worse than to get a Dell.

Mind you, there are still days when I want my Mac back. But I haven't had a moment's trouble out of this Dell desktop in almost two years. And when we bought our laptop through Dell and started having trouble with the keyboard, they sent a tech around to replace it. No charge. Took me maybe ten minutes to arrange the house call through their service department, and haven't had a moment's trouble out of the laptop since, either.

For these reasons, Dell has earned the TTS Seal of Approval.

Yeah, I know, that and a buck might buy them some coffee. I still say they're a great company to do business with.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Orion: Have You Called Jenny Yet?

My suspicions have been confirmed, sort of, by a post over at Transterrestrial Musings. The new Orion spacecraft is having some [ahem] girth issues. Now, to a degree, this is a chicken-and-egg problem: is Orion too damn heavy, or is the Ares I booster too puny? Most experienced spacecraft engineers will tell you it's the former. There are a number of good reasons for that.

As I said earlier, I was rather less than astonished to see that the estimated mass of the Orion spacecraft grow during the various iterations of the design process. There hasn't been a flying vehicle yet from the Wright Flyer on up that hasn't experienced weight creep. It just happens. You think you've hit all the angles, and toted up everything you're going to put on the vehicle. But every time you turn the crank to re-compute the gross weight, more mass appears almost as if by magic. Because there's always something you didn't consider. There's always a bracket that doesn't quite fit, and needs re-design. Always, re-design means that the part in question gets heavier.

No, that's not what's got people talking. Some weight creep is expected. What's causing the uproar is the amount of weight creep. And more to the point, the amount of weight creep relative to where we are in the design process.

What I find somewhat unnerving is the number of changes being made, as suggested by this document. They're fiddling with a whole bunch of things that really ought to have been nailed down tight already. I worry rather less about the specifics of the trade-offs than I do about the fact that they're being made NOW, not two years ago. This ain't good. But on the other hand, it's been thirty years since we last designed a manned spacecraft. To an extent, we're having to re-learn the discipline. The guys what did it last time are retired, dead, or both.

Doing it for real isn't the same as doing it on paper.

That said, we're just going to have to face facts, and accept that the schedule is going to slip to the right as they iron out these problems. They're going to have to force Orion onto a strict diet, and find a way to shed some unsightly pounds. And as I said earlier, there are plenty of good reasons they're going that route, rather than either beefing up the Ares I booster or upgrading to a more powerful model.

Every extra pound at the top of the stack has many, many unwanted effects. You have to burn that much more fuel to get it there. The extra fuel translates into bigger fuel tanks, more structure, more weight, and so on. It's easy to get into such a vicious spiral that you no longer have enough power to leave the ground at all, much less reach orbit. Plus, every pound you shave off of Orion is an extra pound of payload that can go to the Moon lander. More equipment, more sample return capacity, more flexibility on that end of the mission. These savings can also have unexpected benefits. The Apollo spacecraft had similar weight problems, and a design decision was made to shift some of the mass budget over to the lunar lander. The extra fuel and consumables ended up saving the lives of the Apollo 13 crew, since the upgraded LEM now had the capability to function as a lifeboat.

So, bearing all that in mind, my mood is slightly annoyed, but not truly alarmed. These are some pretty sharp folks. They might have to go through a few more iterations to get it just right, but they'll get the job done.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Fear and Loathing at Pepperdine

Meanwhile, back at the Batcave, we still don't know for sure who won last year's Tour.

That's because the title is in limbo, pending the decision of the arbitration panel that heard the Landis case in early May, at Pepperdine University in California.

They have about two months, give or take, to render a decision. I don't envy them their job. This decision could swing either way, and truthfully, you could defend their decision either way. It's not that I don't care, although I don't have much emotional investment one way or the other. The evidence is sufficiently convoluted that it's damn hard to figure out what's what.

The process goes something like this: At the outset, the accused enjoys a presumption of innocence. That is, until the USADA presents evidence of cheating from an internationally-certified laboratory. Then, the burden of proof shifts to the defense, who has to prove somehow or other that the results are tainted. If they can do that, the burden shifs back to the accusers, who then have to prove the validity of their results.

Grounds for doubt were shown, I think, in two key areas: chain of custody, and laboratory procedures.

I worked part of my way through college as a credit clerk, processing credit applications for a national chain of jewelry stores. We maintained an airtight custody chain for those applications. When we got one in over the fax, it was timestamped and logged. When an operator got it, he/she noted the time they began to work on it. When a supervisor approved or declined the application, the time was also noted. You had a cradle-to-grave hand-to-hand chain, and you could tell by looking exactly who had it at which time, and what they were doing with it. Where I work now, we also deal with sensitive information. These items also have a cradle-to-grave custody chain. By glance, you can tell from the log exactly where it was and who was responsible for it, 24/7/365, no questions about it.

The French lab has an appallingly lax chain of custody. There were hours -- hours -- when the only evidence you could present about the location and custody of a sample was the tech's say-so. Unacceptable. Completely unacceptable.

Second, laboratory procedure. Adherence to process is vital. For me, at my job, our processes are the key to repeatable success. We know what works, we know the steps to take to achieve success at every step in the development process. Deviation from the process in not acceptable, without project-specific tailoring approved in writing. Execute to plan, and routine success is very likely.

The French idea of process adherence is also appallingly lax. They didn't even have the freaking manual for the machine they were using to run the tests! How in the name of God can you testify to the results, when you can't even know for sure that you're using the machine right? Basically, every time they bring a new tech in, they're playing "telephone". You remember that old campfire game, where one guy thinks of a sentence, and whispers it to the guy on his right. The process is repeated, until you work your way around the campfire. What usually happens is that the original sentence mutates beyond recognition, and everyone has a good laugh. Except that this is scarcely a laughing matter.

So: I can completely understand if they decide to throw the results out as invalid. This lab has some serious issues that need to be addressed before they can regain any shadow of credibility. It's particularly telling that the French Open elected to have their compliance samples sent to a lab in Montreal, rather than use the lab in Paris.

But on the other hand...

Cheating is endemic in cycling. Let's look at the record:

Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, and Floyd Landis have all either been implicated in, or have outright admitted to cheating. Even Lance Armstrong, who has never failed any test, remains under suspicion in some circles. These five men comprise every winner of the Tour de France since 1996. As the podium goes, so goes the rest of the peloton, if they desire to be competitive. It's open knowledge among cycling fans that just about everyone does it.

If that's to change, some big names have to go down.

To an extent, that's happening. Jan Ullrich was forced into retirement. Ivan Basso, a favorite for this year's Tour, admitted his role in Operacion Puerto, and has drawn a two-year ban. Bjarne Riis admitted to doping in the 1996 Tour, and is giving back his jersey.

This is a good start.

So, while there's enough reson to doubt the lab results that I won't be very upset if Floyd wins vindication, I will have no sympathy for him whatsoever if the panel rules against him. If he cheated and got caught, he deserves to pay for his poor judgement.

And maybe, just maybe, we can look forward to a good, clean race this year.

They start rolling again next Saturday, July 7, in London. It's anyone's race again this year, and I'll be watching to see how it turns out on the road.

May the best man win!


Generally speaking, I try not to skip whole months. I blame two things. One, World of Warcraft has eaten into my blogging time, for which I make no apology. Two, not much has caught my interest of late.

It's been a slow summer. You'll notice I've pretty much stopped writing about Iraq. That's because (1) all the important decisions have already been made, and (2) I don't much care to beat a dead horse. My opinions haven't changed much: Saddam had to go, but the occupation has been mishandled with an ineptitude that would shame the Italian General Staff. Not mishandled by our soldiers, mind you, they've performed with bravery and tenacity, largely in the finest traditions of the service. Our civilian leadership, on the other hand, has let them down terribly. This is unlikely to change, as the Bush Administration limps through its last two years like a gut-shot mule. So it goes.

Another interest of mine is space exploration, and while quite a lot has been going on, it hasn't lent itself to much writing. Supposedly, the Ares I booster is up for a design review, but I haven't heard how that went. Rumor has it that it's underpowered, and can't lift the Orion spacecraft to orbit. Color me shocked, he said sarcastically; vehicles always gain weight during the design process. Design is an iterative process, and they'll arrive at a workable solution eventually. I'll keep an eye on it, and when something interesting happens, I'll chime in.

Politics is one of my favorite indoor sports, but it's too damn early to start bloviating about the next election. Wake me after football season.

But buck up: It's July, which means that the world's cycling aficionados are converging on the land of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys. The Tour de France is always good for some entertainment. More about that in future posts.

It's a good life. But I don't always feel motivated to write about it...